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The Tentacle


December 2, 2005

Winchester Hall Merry-go-round

Roy Meachum

Matters seem holiday quiet along Frederick County’s corridors of power, but Christmas has little to do with it. As usual, in a year of city elections, Winchester Hall appears to fade. It’s still there.

The biggest recent noise on East Church Street came from the presentation of the county’s wish list to the legislative delegation. The annual breakfast has always struck me as a pantomime with words. That’s right, an oxymoron.

Way beyond my understanding was the dire spectacle of the commissioners going cap-in-hand to beg the General Assembly to approve the move to demand six-month residency for political wannabes.

The game of “mother – may I” gets better.

John “Lennie” Thompson’s crusade to charge a five-cent tax on bottles really died before getting out of the Winchester Hall’s gate and into the delegation’s inbox – with no help from outside hands.

Of course, I would like to see the measure passed – but by the commissioners. With voters summoning up Mr. Thompson’s name each time they paid out a nickel, the bard of Walkersville would soon be whistling closer to home.

Under existing law, the county government must get on its collective knees and beseech the all-powerful legislature to make the decision. Throwing the issue of a local tax for Coke and Bud bottles in the General Assembly’s lap makes no sense.

Even more absurd was the discovery that the commissioners cannot regulate what it costs locally to get a divorce. Having been that route, I’m reluctant to endorse the idea. But why must the Maryland legislature take time to consider such trivia, while important state business needs their full-time attention.

As a qualified party, I am probably in favor of the commissioners’ idea to freeze my property tax rate. Frankly, I only know what I read in the News-Post, and there’s nothing there to make me jump up and down. Del. Don Elliott thinks the adjustment should take the form of moderating assessment values; I don’t know.

On one principal there is no doubt: I think the decision should be made by officials who report directly to Frederick property owners. Under the existing system, whatever happens can be blamed on those beyond local voters’ reach.

The same dictum applies to Jan Gardner’s notion that new housing should pay a tax instead of the present fee. In favor are the groups and individuals who have taken up the cause of affordable housing, rapidly vanishing like the dodo bird.

The opposing real estate interests and developers point out the shift could result in higher costs that will be, naturally, passed along. They’re right.

Fees are fixed and taxes show a marked affinity for growing leaps and bounds; but so is the need for expanded services and facilities, like roads. The expansion grows from the expanding population, off which developers and real estate agents have made more than a pretty penny.

On the other hand, as I’ve argued before, the building industry is the life blood of the local economy; we need it healthy and providing jobs.

Whatever happens on this and those other county issues will happen no matter what you and I think, feel or say.

While highly unlikely, the possibility still exists that questions important to the county could die, killed by people who have never seen Market and Patrick streets.

In play is an 18th century paternalism: the concept that we are unable and unfit to govern ourselves. This is why our presidential elections are burdened by the Electoral College, a civic monster that should have been replaced the day the first electric lights lit up.

Evoking fear of a runaway local government that might tyrannize or bankrupt the county makes us look terrible, like naďve fools that anybody can swindle.

All those anti-change advocates are ultimately refuted by an obvious reality: Frederick is Maryland’s last large jurisdiction still ruled by commissioners who are both legislators and executives, who provide checks on their power by political differences. If they ever got together, democracy goodbye!

Our neighbors, Montgomery and Howard, long ago abandoned a system that produced ugly fractiousness, no stranger to Winchester Hall. Separating legislative from executive functions does not ensure peace and harmony, but at least the lines are clear.

In all, some 10 counties operate under a charter that restricts General Assembly meddling. None has fallen prey to a county executive who fancies himself a dictator. That was the chief fear that killed a referendum 14 years ago. No-changers pictured now-Delegate Galen Clagett as warming up to play Frederick’s Hitler.

That misshapen view denigrated the proposed council as weak and hapless, prone to take orders rather than claim their right as lawmakers for the county’s business.

My column was on the losing side in 1991, and so were the people of this community. By the way, the referendum’s turnout ran a whopping 11 percent. Charter lost approximately two-to-one.

Passions against Mr. Clagett prompted those “agin” his becoming chief executive to turn out; folks who saw the advantage of casting free from Annapolis’ interference were not as motivated. Negative reactions normally trump positive emotions, as election after election proves; most recently in Frederick City.

Mr. Thompson managed to get the question of a possible code form of home rule on the ballot the last election; the results must have brought even more frowns to his normally sullen brow.

High among the priorities for the next commissioners should be a committee to write a charter that can be voted on in a referendum.

With Democrat Clagett fighting for his political life, probably against GOP Alderman Bill Hall, there should be rather clear sailing for this county to move toward self-government. I hope so.



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